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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

8 Signs You’re Scientifically Illiterate

Here’s something that may shock you: GM ain’t no scholar. I rarely got good grades, skipped my entire 11th grade to stay home and hack into the School District’s BBS, pose as a teacher and debate them all. I had to go back for a semester to graduate. In biology class, I doodled. In art, I read A People’s History of the United States. In History, I mostly just slept. I was not a good student by any stretch of the imagination. My high school celebrated the day I was finally able to leave, not because I graduated, but because they were so happy not to have to deal with me anymore. In college, my lofty plans of becoming a marine archaeologist were dashed by the realization that I not only had to attend classes to pass, but I was to hit $11,000 in debt after just getting my associate's degree. Being as all I ever did was read and write in my spare time, I figured fuck this. I got my associates in jack squat and took my books home.

I am what most people would describe as a student who “fell through the cracks”. And yet, in spite of this, I am still not as scientifically illiterate as some of the theists who bombard me wanting to debate. Considering that some of these people, if not most, probably had more success in their education than I did, I am terrified for the future of our education system.

Here are 8 signs you may have fallen through the cracks, too, and are amongst the scientifically illiterate:

1. You’ve found yourself saying “evolution is just a theory” more than once. 

This makes clear that you don’t know the difference between ‘theory’ and ‘theory’. Even though I was busy drawing devil horns on every photo of a living creature in my biology textbook, I still seemed able to pick up the fact that there are two definitions for the word, ‘theory’. One is scientific and the other is colloquial. We all know that in everyday speech, the word ‘theory’ means hypothesis or guess, but did you know that within the scientific world, it actually means something completely different? Yo! MTV Raps! It does! Here is the scientific definition of the word ‘theory’:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.

As R-Dawk once said,

Richard Dawkins

Evolution is just a theory? Well, so is gravity, but I don’t see you jumping out of buildings. – Richard Dawkins

2. You think science is a set of beliefs. Belief has nothing to do with science. 

Science is based on observation, repetition and verifiability. When you drop a ball 3 million times and it falls, you can safely assume the 3,000,001st time, it’ll fall, yet again. Science is the process of observing that phenomena over and over and over and then describing it as a predictable outcome in the natural world. No belief required. We can demonstrate that the ball will fall, as many times as you like.

3. You think “observable” means “detectable by sight”.

There are many different ways to observe natural phenomena. Helium makes your voice sound funny – this is observable through sound. Humidity is observable through measuring equipment, and in cases of high humidity, the air kinda feels like soup. The general temperature on Venus can be measured with instruments and mathematics, as can the distance between Earth and other celestial objects. There are many different ways to observe phenomena in science, and they go well beyond just sight.

4. You often cite single studies as evidence for various hypotheses.

A single study is not enough evidence to conclude anything. Studies must be reviewed, repeated, and closely scrutinized before any true conclusions can be made. For instance, one could, if one wanted to, hypothesize that Internet Explorer usage was somehow tied to murder rates. That person could then set out to analyze the stats when it comes to Internet Explorer usage and murder rates and sees a similar decline in both over the same time period. The person conducting this study could then assert that, yes indeed, using Internet Explorer causes people to kill. The lower the usage of said browser, the lower the murder rates appear to be. It makes sense, too, doesn’t it? I mean, Internet Exploder was probably one of the most horrible pieces of software ever written and often caused people to lose their minds. Twice as much if you were a web developer. Maybe some people just couldn’t control their frustration and had to go on a killing spree.

We all know this is crazy, though, don’t we? What has to happen to this study now, is that other scientists need to review the methodology. All the other reasons for a decline in murder rates must be ruled out, and controlled experiments need to be performed. Perhaps scientists replace a crime-riddled neighbourhood’s browsers with Firefox and watch for a drop in homicide rates. When enough data has been collected, and enough experiments performed with the same outcome no matter where in the world they’re conducted, that’s when you can conclude that either Internet Explorer is causing people to kill each other, or it’s just another scapegoat. When you can correctly predict the outcome of every experiment conducted to prove this point, it becomes a fact.

5. You think science is bullshit because researchers are paid hella bux by Big Pharma and Monsanto and the like to produce biased results.

It’s true that large corporations often hire their own researchers to conduct studies that favour their products or services. However, if we head back to number 4 in this list, we quickly remember that a single study proves nothing. Even multiple studies conducted by the same outfit are not enough. In order for something to be considered a fact, controlled experiments on the subject at hand must be able to be repeated and tested by anyone, anywhere, and always yield similar results.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Philip Morris has a team of researchers that continually find smoking to be good for your health. You know… ’cause that’s not a stretch or anything. There’s not a single scientist out there who would back up these studies as fact. It’s not until it is peer-reviewed, published and repeated over and over with the same results, that it becomes scientific fact.

Often, when large corporations conduct studies like this, they use their PR department to get the findings out into the media prematurely, while the review process goes largely unnoticed. What results is that we get a very poor picture of the scientific process from the mainstream media. That’s why one week you’ll read that wine is bad for you, and the next you’ll read that a glass a day will keep you healthy. The media is showing you single studies that haven’t been verified.

If you’re truly interested in keeping up to date about what’s really going on in science, outside of what mainstream media and fortune 500s want you to know, read respected scientific journals. Here are just a few:

6. You think the “God particle” is proof of God.

No. “God particle” is a nickname given to the Higgs boson particle, and it started as a joke. Professor Higgs himself hates the nickname because Higgs boson has nothing at all to do with any gods. Higgs, an atheist himself, was actually a little irritated by the name because it was so misleading.

So, what is the Higgs boson? It’s not an easy concept to grasp, but here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

The Higgs boson or Higgs particle is an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. It allows scientists to explore the Higgs field—a fundamental field first suspected to exist in the 1960s that unlike the more familiar electromagnetic field cannot be “turned off”, but instead takes a non-zero constant value almost everywhere. The presence of this field, now believed to be confirmed, explains why some fundamental particles have mass even though the symmetries controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and also answers several other long-standing puzzles in physics, such as the reason the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force.

It’s not divine. It’s not omnipotent. It’s certainly not proof of gods.

7. You’re darned sure that Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard this one, I’d be writing this from my yacht.

The second law of thermodynamics states that disorder increases over time in closed systems. So, how can evolution produce more complex organisms if disorder is increasing?

What you’ve failed to realize, is that the second law of thermodynamics only applies to closed systems that lack outside sources of energy. Life on Earth is not a closed system, and most of our energy has external sources (ie. the sun). Therefore, the second law of thermodynamics does not apply to life… at least not here on Earth.

Oregon Vortex

8. You think a few isolated hoaxes prove evolution to be false.

The Piltdown man, Nebraska man, Java man… whatever your hoax of choice is, none of it disproves evolution. The evidence for evolution is staggering and is not just limited to fossil finds. In fact, there are mountains of evidence for evolution that have nothing to do with fossils. For starters, we have observed many similarities in different species that suggest a connected lineage. The similarities between all types of primates for example. Closely examining DNA similarities between chimps and humans can paint a picture of a shared ancestor, with or without a fossil to prove it. Those similarities are observed in a similar way a paternity test is conducted or testing the DNA evidence in a murder investigation. We’ve also observed that many species have traits that came from different times or different places. Our wisdom teeth, for example. They’re leftover from a time when our ancestors had mouths big enough to accommodate more teeth. Now, they just cause pain and infection while paying for your dentist’s kids’ new snowboarding gear.

Like gravity, evolution is being observed on a daily basis. Saying that a handful of hoaxes or mistakes disprove it, is like saying that the reverse-gravity optical illusions at the Oregon Vortex disprove gravity. It kinda makes you sound dense.

Science is not difficult to understand. We use it in our everyday life. Every last person on Earth does. Often, we change our behaviour based on observation and understanding an expected outcome. If you live in a particularly dry place and in the winter months you tend to get shocked by your car door every time you get out of it, you find a way to avoid it. Either you ground yourself by tapping something else before you touch the car, or you just wait until someone else gets out first and they can take the pain for you. Either way, you have consistently observed a phenomenon, enough to be able to predict the outcome with near-perfect accuracy, and adjusted your behaviour to suit your findings. That’s it. Right there. You’ve just used science to dupe your brother into getting shocked so you don’t have to. Sorry, bro.

If you want to increase your scientific literacy, either for education, fun, or just to be able to sound more knowledgeable when arguing with us atheists, check out these books, which are all great for beginners but geared toward intelligent adults:

What are some of the funniest things you’ve heard people say that make you pretty sure they lack any knowledge of what science really is?

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